Adding a Third Sex Category Is a Start
Should we have "Category X" as well as male and female on birth certificates?
Posted March 8, 2018
By Barbara Risman and Georgiann Davis
On January 27, the state of Washington gave adults a third sex option on birth certificates — an “X” to indicate neither male nor female — without medical documentation. As gender scholars, we applaud this. It’s a big deal for the state to say that we don’t simply have males and females. Just adding one more category is a good start, but it doesn’t solve the problem of how we use these categories.
We all learned from parents, teachers, and friends that sex is an either/or, a binary. Males have XY chromosomes, testes, and a penis, whereas females have XX chromosomes, ovaries, and a uterus. But this attempt at classifying bodies is a flawed oversimplification. As many as 2 percent of people are born with a combination of sex characteristics that are neither exclusively male nor female. They are known as people with intersex traits. For example, one of the co-authors, Georgiann, was born with an outward female appearance, but inside her body, instead of typical female reproductive structures, she has XY chromosomes and testes. Well, actually, she had testes until doctors removed them when she was a teenager. But as she documents in her book, Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis, the presence of intersex characteristics doesn’t harm one’s life. Instead, intersex people are harmed by the unnecessary surgeries they are forced to endure to make their body conform to society’s norms. So, given the existence of intersex people like Georgiann, an “X” option on birth certificates seems to be a step in the right direction, right? Well, no, not quite. Who wants to be relegated to an “other” box?
The state of Washington defines X as “gender that is not exclusively male or female, including, but not limited to, intersex, amender, amalgagender, androgynous, bigender, demigender, female-to-male, gender-fluid, genderqueer, male-to-female, nonbinary, pangender, third sex, transgender, transsexual, Two Spirit, and unspecified.” To assume, even for population statistical purposes, that someone who identifies as intersex is similar to someone who identifies as gender-fluid, meaning a person whose gender identity is not fixed, is akin to lumping together all racial minorities into nonwhite, ignoring the fact that experiences vary across, and within, racial groups.
In addition to combining very different people into one group, this X category confuses sex and gender. Whereas “male” and “female” are sex terms meant to categorize people by their reproductive structures (as problematic as such classification may be), the X is made up of a wide range of mostly gender identities, although intersex is thrown in for good measure. It’s dangerous to confuse sex and gender. Sex refers to anatomical and physiological disposition, whereas gender at the individual level refers to how we see ourselves in terms of masculinity and femininity, and how we get treated based on what people think they know about our bodies. To allow “male,” “female,” and now “X” on birth certificates to supposedly identify intersex, nonbinary, trans, gender-fluid, and genderqueer persons, the state of Washington turns this confused merging of sex and gender into law.
The “X” option has to be meaningful to some folks, right? Might it be the answer for today’s genderqueer youth? Not necessarily. Interviews from author Risman’s research in Where the Millennials Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure suggests that some genderqueer millennials reject categorization and might well sneer at the third category. Others might jump at the chance to identify as "X” on their birth certificate.
While adding the “X” option on birth certificates expands our understanding of sex, we see it as a bandage, not a cure, for the ongoing problem of categorizing both sex and gender. But it is a start, and we have to start somewhere. The Census Bureau struggles with racial categories every decade and changes the options as necessary. Let “X” kick off the conversation about what categories we need and why.
This article was first published by The Seattle Times. Pleased to have a co-author on this blog post, Professor Georgiann Davis from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
Davis, Georgiann. 2015. Contesting Intersex: The Dubious Diagnosis. New York: New York University Press.
Risman, Barbara. 2018. Where the Millennial Will Take Us: A New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure. New York: Oxford University Press.